Lessons from the life of #18, Beth Dunlap

by Jeff Smith

I’d never heard of Beth Dunlap until learning the news that the Downers Grove North junior was struck by a car while walking across the street to school the morning of February 19. She tragically passed away three days later.

Serve City boys volleyball players gather during a tournament on Sunday for an 18-second moment of silence in memory of Beth Dunlap.

Serve City boys volleyball players gather during a tournament on Sunday for an 18-second moment of silence in memory of Beth Dunlap.

It’s been hard not to think of her since.

It grips your heart to hear of a young life taken far too soon. One minute Beth is entering a crosswalk near school on a typical day. The next minute the lives of her parents, sister, friends, teachers, classmates and teammates are thrown into chaos by the careless act of an alleged drunk driver.

Beth’s passing hits close to home. My two daughters had so much in common with Beth. They’re two years older than Beth. They both play volleyball like Beth, a DGN and club standout. My younger daughter is a setter like Beth was. They’re churchgoers with a strong faith in God like Beth apparently had. They’re dedicated students like Beth was. They’re devoted to our family just like Beth was a member of a close-knit family.

After reading about Beth’s tragic accident, I prayed for God’s protection over my daughters. I know I can’t keep them safe in this broken world, not by a long shot.

As a girls volleyball director, Beth’s passing made me see Serve City’s girls players in a new frame of mind. We don’t just have 122 female athletes on our 12 teams. We have 122 Beth Dunlaps.

As a parent it’s difficult to imagine the gut-wrenching pain and heartache that Beth’s parents are suffering. I will pray for Randall and Jennifer 18 times this month in honor of Beth’s #18 volleyball jersey and the Beth Dunlap 18 Fund. Beth’s trust fund was established to benefit First United Methodist Church, her church home, and to launch a charitable fund that accomplishes 18 acts of kindness annually in the volleyball community to assist underprivileged volleyball players.

The Dunlaps will desperately need the prayers and support of many people in the weeks, months and, honestly, years to come.

Beth’s passing hit especially close to home for me last Saturday, the day after she died, as I traveled to a volleyball tournament in Marengo. On the way I had to drive near the site where I was thrown out of the shattered back windshield of my car into a field along I-90 after being struck by four different vehicles on a stormy October 5 evening last fall. After that accident I laid unconscious and didn’t regain consciousness for an hour after arriving at Sherman Hospital in Elgin.

A near-death experience changes your perspective. Now, when I think of Beth and the dark valley her family and friends are journeying through, I realize more than ever how fragile life is.

At 10:59 a.m. you’re walking across a street near school, or at 8:59 p.m. you’re driving down a highway heading home from a college volleyball tournament. Then suddenly, in a matter of seconds, you’re lying on the ground unconscious and helpless.

Sadly, Beth didn’t get a chance to recover from the devastating car accident that robbed her life. But even though she is no longer on earth, she still taught me three powerful lessons.

1. Touch lives around you

That’s not easy to do sometimes. Loved ones hurt us. Strangers hurt us. The world hurts us. And, let’s face it, we hurt others. We’re all far from perfect.

But, then you read about the Dunlaps who, even as they cry in agony over an unspeakable tragedy, still decide to set up the Beth Dunlap 18 Fund, donate Beth’s organs to science, commit to raise money for their church and perform acts of kindness so underprivileged kids get the same opportunity to play volleyball that their daughter enjoyed.

Even in the midst of the despair of darkness, the Dunlaps are choosing to shine light.

2. Forgive others

If I were in the Dunlaps’ shoes, I’d want to hold a bitter grudge against the driver whose reckless actions snuffed out their daughter’s life. Unfortunately, as the famous quote says, bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

From everything I’ve read and heard about Beth’s family, I expect they’ll forgive the driver. They won’t ever forget, nor should they, and it will be perhaps the the most daunting task they’ll ever do. But it will be the right thing for them to do for their healing as they move forward with their lives.

If the Dunlaps can forgive something so horrific, so can we forgive others for much lesser pains.

3. Kindness matters

On Monday I was exhausted and cranky after working seven long, draining days, including coaching two tournaments, leading four practices, running a fundraiser, setting up team picture day and organizing Feed My Starving Children on top of regular duties and home responsibilities.

While slumped in my recliner at home, I opened GroupMe on my phone and saw an amazing picture of members of Serve City 14 Blue each displaying #18 on their hands in honor of Beth.

As I looked at the photo, it felt like God was telling me to do something on my own to honor Beth. So I brought cookies for our 12 Blue and 12 Red teams at their practice on Tuesday just to surprise them and did the same for 13 Blue and 13 Red at their practice on Thursday. I invited my daughters to go to a movie with me because I love them so much. I devoted a day to pray for my wife because she means the world to me, and I called my mom Thursday because frankly I owe her everything.

I don’t do random acts of kindness like this very often. I give the credit to #18, Beth Dunlap. Her life inspired our 14 Blue players to pay tribute to her, which motivated me to do the same.

Death may have taken Beth’s last breath, but it can’t stop her life from continuing to impact others for years to come. In fact, she may end up impacting more lives now than she ever did before.

No. 18 walked off the court of life as a winner.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.